Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Ho Xuan Huong’s skillful wordplays have always intrigued me. She was famous for composing poems with both thanh (“pure”) and tuc (“obscene”) contents at once. Using noi lai (“phrase reversals”) and taking the advantage of word tones, she was able to paint perfect pictures as well as provocative imageries with her poetry. For instance, the last line of “Qua Mit (Jackfruit)” reads, “Xin dung man mo nhua ra tay ([Please don’t] caress me [or] sap will slicken your hands).” I am wondering where does the word Jackfruit comes from? Just kidding!

While surfing through the Browsing Collection at Vassar College Library, I was thrilled to spot Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong still features on the current interest shelf even though the book was published in 2000. I am delighted to see her work is exposed in the West and I appreciate John Balaban for his incredible efforts.

The book features forty-nine selected poems from Ho Xuan Huong, written in Nom (calligraphic script), Vietnamese, and translated into English by John Balaban. Although the second meaning (tuc ) is lost in translation – even he admits it in his introduction – he has done a phenomenal job of transporting her poetry to the Western audience. His endnotes help tremendously in explaining her work to those who are unfamiliar with the Vietnamese language and culture. I wish the endnotes were printed below the English translations for better reference even though they would distract from the visual layout of the book.

Before reading this book, I did not know we had a script writing system similar to Chinese calligraphy called Nom. In Balaban’s introduction he states that only about thirty, out of seventy-six million, Vietnamese could read Nom. Isn’t that remarkable? Speaking of the introduction, he does a great job of giving a brief summary of Ho Xuan Huong’s biography.

Ho Xuan Huong is an amazing poet and her work deserves to be known. John Balaban has made it possible by making the translations available. Furthermore, the reprinting of Nom characters, which original used by Ho Xuan Huong, alone is worth the price of the book. Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong is highly recommended for a pleasure experience.